GEORGETOWN, Maine (AP) — John Hagan surveys a vast field of tidal mud and envisions a place where farmers will one day rake clams in a way that more closely resembles harvesting potatoes or carrots than shellfish.
Whether New England’s long history of harvesting clams endures might hinge on whether the bold plan works.
The region’s annual haul of clams is in decline, and Hagan, president of the Massachusetts-based sustainability group Manomet, is among the people who want to save it by encouraging the industry to try turning to a new model — farming.
“This is a climate change story. The warming Gulf of Maine brings more crabs, and increasing crabs is what we think is playing a role in the diminishing soft-shell clam population,” Hagan said. “Can we beat the green crabs? I don’t have a hard answer.”
Fishermen have raked wild soft-shell clams, also called steamers or longnecks, from coastal muck in Maine and other states for hundreds of years. But threats such as growing populations of predators, like the invasive green crabs, drove Maine’s harvest to its lowest total since the 1930s last year.
The future of clamming could lie in seeding and growing clams in tidal areas, using protective nets, Hagan said. The group operates an experimental farm along the Maine coast, in Georgetown, and installed new ones this week in Scarborough and Arrowsic.
The group, along with some allies in the industry and academia, hope farming can help rehabilitate the harvest because clam farmers can use the nets to keep growing clams safe from predators like crabs. They have a long way to go, and Hagan and others acknowledge that scaling up clam farming to the point when it’s profitable enough to be worthwhile could be difficult.
Some clammers already are on board.
“If this lets a clammer work, and he just needs to set up nets and things to make it, he’ll do it,” said Wendell Cressey, a clammer who plans to farm in Arrowsic. “As long as there’s money, he’ll do it. That’s fishing.”
Aquaculture is well established in Maine, where farmers steward everything from salmon to mussels to kelp.
But soft-shell clam farming remains mostly uncharted territory, said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. No aquaculture leaseholders are growing soft-shell clams, though some are authorized to do it, he said.
Would-be farmers must contend with stubborn clammers who don’t want to abandon a traditional New England way of life, property owners reluctant to lease space for clam farming and members of the public who don’t want to lose waterfront access.
“They don’t consider aquaculture to be fishing, even though that’s the future of the shellfish industry,” said Chad Coffin, a veteran wild-harvest Maine clammer.
Manomet’s experimental Georgetown farm is a collection of about 75 280-square-foot (26-square-meter) netted areas of tidal mud — essentially clam nurseries — located at the mouth of the Kennebec River. It yielded enough clams to bring to market for the first time last year and is expected to do so again this year.
The group also has attempted to farm clams elsewhere in Maine, including on Chebeague Island, but with less success. And it also must contend with milky ribbon worm, another predator of clams that is not deterred by the nets.
The predators eat soft-shell clams, which are often used in fried clam rolls and clam strips. The nationwide harvest of the clams fell to a little less than 2.8 million pounds (1.2 million kilograms) of meat in 2016. That was the lowest total since 2000.
The situation is bleak, but Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, said it creates an opportunity for farmers to save the clams.
“Either people are going to forget about clams, or they’re going to say, ‘I miss clams, I wish they were around, why are they so expensive,'” he said. “That’s the time to say, if we had a clam farm, and we could put our hands on 1,000 bushel of clams, we’d have a lot of money.”